The wind was blowing cold enough to freeze Santa Claus' heart. On one side of us, dogs barked from backyards and industrial lots. On the other was a stretch of the Anacostia River that the Army Corps of Engineers has graded and groomed until it looks as wild and free as a concrete canal.

As hikes go, this one had all the initial appeal of an ingrown toenail.

"Prince George's is an overlooked county for hiking," said Ed Evangelidi, the president of the Center Hiking Club and leader of this urban expedition who promised the dozen hikers that, before the trek was over, there would be beauty to behold.

There are a half-dozen hiking clubs in the Washington area. The members of those clubs share a passion for the outdoors and a fondness for exploring it with company. And all of the clubs are as different as the trails they follow.

The Sierra Club, for instance, has a reputation for organizing expedition-length hikes. The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club is dedicated to clearing and maintaining trails; members often work while they walk. Some clubs hike exclusively. Others also do backpacking and cross-country skiing.

The Center club, which was started in 1939, will do just about anything one of its members conjures up, from ice skating to midnight hikes from Capitol Hill to Georgetown.

The club makes all the wilderness hikes that others do, but with the economy faltering and gas prices again on the rise, members have started scouting for hidden attractions within the beltway.

"This trip looked so offbeat we had to try it," said Marc Anthony, who got interested in hiking three years ago after retiring from 32 years of government work. "I retired and discovered I didn't have anything to do."

The club has 300 members, from preteens to 80-year-olds. But rarely do more than 15 ever show up for any one outing. As a result, strangers become friends very quickly.

"There is a very intimate kind of relationship here," said Stephanie Williams, a short, dark-haired woman who this day has developed blisters from her new hiking boots. Williams belonged to a hiking club in Tucson, Ariz., when a job offer brought her to Washington a few years ago. She had been here for a month when she realized she missed more than the exercise she had in Tucson.

"It was Thanksgiving. Suddenly, I realized I had no friends and no plans." After a few phone calls, she found both at the next Center hike.

The social aspect of the club seems as important to some of the hikers as the actual hikes. In recent years, at least three couples have married after meeting on hikes. Along with romance on the trail, there is the camaraderie that comes from sharing sunsets and sore feet.

Center hikes are about as loosely organized as club hikes ever get. Tales are gleefully told of hikers getting lost in rain-drenched woods and cars sliding into snowbanks. Maybe the most popular topic of conversation involves food. Mention a good hiking area in the Mid-Atlantic states and someone will start talking about a nearby restaurant with food good enough to die for.

Evangelidi's reputation as an eater is dwarfed by his reputation as a punster. When Evangelidi talks, beavers burrow into their dams and squirrels stuff their ears with nuts. An example: we have just rounded a bend in the river to see two ducks floating downstream. Evangelidi quickly turns to Eli Meltzer.

"Have we got any cheese to go with those quackers?" The hikers groan. The ducks dunk their heads in the brown water.

Evangelidi has been president of the club since 1976, one year after he joined. He is a tireless explorer and, while considerably softer looking than Grizzly Adams, is a strong hiker. He also proves to be correct about this hike along the Northeast Branch of the Anacostia.

Although the trail is paved most of the way, there are sights worth stopping for. After leaving the industrial end of Bladensburg, the trail winds through a number of pocket parks. After a quarter-mile of tree-lined hiking, we stop at a clearing to watch small planes land at College Park Airport, the oldest in the country.

A few hundred yards after spotting some ducks and seagulls, we cross a road where a county policeman has pulled over a speeder. Next stop is the Riverdale Bridge underpass, where we study graffiti while waiting for stragglers.

In less than two hours, the hike is over. In what seems a fitting end, we conclude it by crossing the huge parking lot of the Beltway Plaza shopping center. Now comes the first hard decision of the day -- which of two pizza joints to patronize for a well-deserved posthike snack.